Apple may be the most consistently inventive company in tech, but in its own way, it's a remarkably single-minded outfit. For all their profound differences, a Macintosh computer from 1984 and a new iPad 2 are soul mates. Each is the coolest, most elegant expression of Steve Jobs' vision of the ideal computing device that Apple could build with the technologies and resources it had at the time.
And starting on Wednesday, Macs and iPads will become a lot more similar, thanks to OS X 10.7 Lion, the latest version of the operating system that powers Macs. Apple says the upgrade sports more than 250 new features including everything from refinements to the Mail app to better security in the Safari browser to tools designed to make the software more accessible to disabled users. But most of the highest-profile changes share a unifying principle: they make a Mac feel a little less like a cranky, complicated personal computer and a little more like a 21st century appliance. The upgrade gets there by borrowing both specific capabilities and general themes from iOS, the software on the iPad and iPhone.
Unlike 2009's Snow Leopard, which was mostly about under-the-hood technical tweaks, the new upgrade is rife with tangible benefits. It does match Snow Leopard in one noteworthy respect, though: it costs a measly $29.99. (Earlier OS X editions such as Tiger and Leopard went for $129.) Compared with typical operating-system upgrades I'm looking at you, Windows its bang-for-the-buck quotient is off the charts.
When Leopard, the last really major OS X upgrade, arrived in 2007, Windows featured the hapless Vista, and the contrast between Apple's sleek software and Microsoft's annoying mishmash of an operating system was striking. Microsoft rebounded nicely with Windows 7, but Lion gives Apple its formidable lead back. It's fresh, it's clever, and it knows how to stay out of your face until you need it to help you out. It has also arrived long before Microsoft's kinda-sorta-iPad-inspired Windows 8, which should show up sometime next year.
In a first for a major consumer operating system, Apple isn't burning its new OS onto DVDs and shipping it to retailers. Instead, it's selling it in purely digital form through the Mac App Store it launched in January. It's a portly download: 4 GB, about the same size as an HD movie from the iTunes Store. Those with sluggish Internet connections may squawk. But one $29.99 payment lets you install Lion directly from the App Store onto multiple Macs associated with one iTunes account, and you can reinstall it later in case of an emergency. Besides being available as an upgrade, it will ship on all new Macs, including speedy new versions of the 11-in. and 13-in. MacBook Air, Apple's thinnest, lightest, most iPad-esque personal computer.
I tried Lion on a new 13-in. MacBook Air lent to me by Apple as well as my own last-generation 13-in. Air, which I upgraded from Snow Leopard. As brand-new operating systems go, it was short on nasty glitches: almost all the software I threw at it ran just fine. (One notable exception: the driver software for a Verizon Wireless 4G adapter, which refused to install itself.) As usual, however, it's eminently sensible to upgrade at your own sweet pace. Waiting until Apple has swatted any big bugs and software developers have released any necessary updates will only improve your experience.
Certain parts of the new software feel like they were cloned directly from iOS none more so than Launchpad, a simplified way to manage applications. Like the iconic Home Screen on the iPad and iPhone, Launchpad fills your Mac's display with a grid of icons that lets you launch programs and shuffle them around to your liking and delete items you bought from the App Store. I found I liked it best on the new MacBook Air, which gives it its own dedicated key. (On my 2010-era Air, I had to load it from the dock or perform a somewhat ungainly gesture on the touch pad: a pinch involving three fingers and a thumb.)
Speaking of things that fill your Mac's entire display, many OS X programs already support full-screen modes that make efficient use of available real estate, especially on the MacBook Air and other models with smallish screens. With Lion, the notion of an app displacing the menu bar and seizing control of the display is built into the operating system. Click on an icon in the upper-right-hand corner of compatible programs and they fill the screen, much as all iPad apps do and you can leave them in full-screen view when you flip over to other programs.
In multiple areas, Lion is helpful in ways that make you stop and think about how unhelpful other operating systems can be previous versions of OS X included. With programs written with the new OS in mind, you don't need to remember to save your work on a document: the operating system does it for you, so it's safe even in the event of a crash or power outage. A feature called Versions, similar to an existing Windows capability but far slicker, automatically preserves copies of your documents as you make changes. (You can flip through them like a stack of cards, restore a previous incarnation or even cut a snippet of an old version into the current one.) Lion also keeps track of the programs you're using when you shut down, then brings them back when you boot up, in a state as close as possible to the previous one.
(Full-screen mode, versions, auto-save and auto-resume, incidentally, all work in apps that come with Lion like the Preview document viewer as well as in Apple programs such as those that make up its iLife suite. Some of them will also work in at least limited form in third-party software without requiring updates. Existing Mac apps will feel truly Lionized once their developers release versions that take advantage of all these new features.)